The meat you eat is not always what it seems

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Can you trust the labels on processed meats – mince, sausages, deli meats and burgers?

If a study conducted by Dr Donna Cawthorn, a food scientist with the University of Stellenbosch, is anything to go by, you can’t.

Cawthorn’s DNA testing of meat products from butcheries in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape revealed that of 139 samples, 95 – or 68 percent – contained meat species which were not declared on the label.

And in the case of samples from KZN and the Eastern Cape, it was a staggering 90 percent.

Sausages were most likely to contain meat species not declared on the label.

Pork and chicken were the most undeclared species in the survey – 37 percent of samples had undeclared pork in them, and 22 percent had undeclared chicken – these meats generally being cheaper than beef or mutton.

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There was undeclared beef and mutton in 19 percent of the samples.

The results revealed widespread contraventions of the Consumer Protection Act – in terms of misleading consumers – and the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, which came into effect in March.

Cawthorn revealed her findings in a presentation titled “Is there horse in my wors?” at a meeting of the SA Association for Food Science and Technology in Cape Town last week.

And that’s not the only unconventional butchery meat she found – four samples tested positive for goat, and another four for water buffalo.

Cawthorn has chosen not to identify the source of the samples, which is common in the case of academic studies, but leaves us unsatisfyingly in the dark about the dodgy butchers.

Consumer Watch commissioned independent DNA testing of a much smaller study: 13 samples of mince and sausages bought from 10 butcheries in the Durban area, one of the country’s hot spots for adulterated processed meat.

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Only four of the 13 were found not to have undeclared meat species in them, and many also contained undeclared soya or gluten, allergens which are required by law to be declared on food labels.

Only one product, a tray of Pick n Pay English-style beef sausages, was beyond reproach – accurately declaring both the correct meat species and allergens, and complying fully with food labelling regulations.

Only one butcher, whose product was found to contain an undeclared meat species, contested the result.

A pack of sausages I’d bought from a butchery in a predominantly Muslim area – lacking a label description or ingredients list, but said by the assistant to be beef – was found to contain pork as well.

This is clearly a major problem, given that the Muslim community does not eat pork.

The butcher was horrified by the result, saying he had made the sausages on site with beef bought from a reputable, halaal organisation-accredited supplier, with non-hog casings bought from another supplier.

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The butcher contacted the National Independent Halaal Trust, and Moulana AW Wookay duly contacted Consumer Watch, stating that the butcher ought not to be named until further tests were conducted, as the DNA testing method used by the lab in question could pick up a single strand of DNA, hence the sample could have been contaminated in transit.

What is not being contested is the fact that the label on those unspecified sausages failed to comply with labelling legislation in a number of respects. All the other companies accepted the results, most saying that failure to clean mincing machines between meat batches was to blame, and undertaking to deal with the problem.

Regarding a pack of “chicken sausages” sold at Queensmead Superspar, which was found to contain chicken along with beef and pork, Spar’s head office said the company had been told by the Department of Health that it need not list the ingredients on that made-on-site product, but that this information could be “kept on file behind the counter for the customer, should they request information on the product”. Food labelling experts disagreed with this interpretation, pointing out that this applied to unpackaged, not packaged products.

Clearly, consumers have the right to expect that a pack of sausages described as chicken, in the absence of any other meat species declared on the label, does not contain any other meat species.

The label would certainly contravene the Consumer Protection Act’s section on product labelling, which states: “A person must not knowingly apply to any goods a trade description that is likely to mislead the consumer as to any matter implied or expressed in that description.”

And given that Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons and, similarly, the Muslim and Jewish communities do not eat pork, such mislabelling – intentional or accidental – has massive implications.

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